‘My country, right or wrong’ is a dead end

Photo: Kill Pop (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Don Flynn on why Starmer’s insincere patriotism isn’t going to fool anyone

By all accounts, the ‘internal strategy presentation’ leaked to the Guardian and reported early in February hardly counts as an important contribution to a debate on socialist theory. 

Inspired by the findings of focus groups conducted across what are called ‘foundation seats’, the presentation reports confusion among those participating as to what Labour ‘really’ stands for. Comments include the complaint that the party is not being “forthright and honest” and how it seems to be “two different parties under one name”.  Most ominously, the focus group researchers were told by one ex-Labour voter from Grimsby, “They are the voice of the students. They have left real people, taxpayers, behind.”

How a democratic socialist party makes itself relevant to the concerns of citizens of a given national community is an issue of critical importance, particularly when they increasingly lack the reference points of working class identity – employment and housing status; existence of a space which represents itself as ‘a community’; horizon of expectations for children, etc – which once defined them. Parties on the right have the advantage of being able to refer to ‘the nation’ as the one foundation for collective identity that continues to exist, though in the case of the United Kingdom this argument is made problematic by the fact that sizeable segments of the population want to secede from its embrace or, in the case of the Northern Ireland province, want to align themselves with another country.

Corbyn’s patriotism

Former leader Jeremy Corbyn is seen by the team around Sir Keir Starmer as having queered the pitch for the patriotic appeal of the Labour Party by not wearing the right clothes at Cenotaph ceremonies and failing to snap to attention when ‘God Save the Queen’ was played.  Instead, he attempted to frame the discussion about what was involved in participating in the life of a national community with tweets that claimed: “Patriotism is about supporting each other, not attacking somebody else. It’s about loving your country enough to make it a place where nobody is homeless or hungry, held back or left behind.”

One of the problems with this approach was that so few people within the Labour parliamentary faction were interested in taking up this message and making it a party-wide response to the insistence of right wingers that patriotism could only ever mean devotion and vigorous support for a country – effectively uncritical acceptance of the dictum “my country, right or wrong”.  Rather than challenging this version of patriotism, a whole section of the party gave the impression that it would be more comfortable if Labour incorporated it into its own brand. But trying to beat the historically established patriotic Tory party at their own jingoistic game will surely prove to be a dead end for Labour. Mandelson-style British bulldogs and the chorus of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ will not aid the party this time around.

Unsurprisingly, the immediate response to the strategy presentation from Labour ranks is reported to range from cautious at best to outright hostility. The Guardian reports its top recommendation as being that the use of the Union flag and “dressing smartly at the war memorial etc give voters a sense of authentic values alignment” – an appeal which resonates with both inauthenticity and insincerity. Merely stating the matter in these terms draws more unwanted attention to the fact that Labour has got little to say about the national community and the citizens who live within it, and the struggles they are now having to deal with in stagnating, Brexiting, coronavirus-infected, capitalist Britain today.

The important questions that need to be asked are how the imagining of a British community life that emerges from the swirl of civil society activity, and its representations in the economic and cultural life of the actually existing nation, might contain the social forces needed to resolve its deep crisis. And do it in a manner consistent with democracy and the needs of the majority of its citizens. The profound sense of belonging to this specifically British society, of moving with its rhythms and having an instinctive grasp of what motivates its peoples, can reasonably be supposed to be some version of patriotism, if the word is used to convey a commitment to working with everything it throws up in order to achieve an end which benefits ‘the many’. But in this day and age this is more likely to mean gazing at the Union flag and asking what it really represents, rather than registering ‘my country, right or wrong’.

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